Do you really need to take a multivitamin as “insurance,” or do you get all the vitamins you need from your diet? It’s hard to tell, especially if your diet isn’t as good as you’d like it to be and you don’t eat a lot of food. (The more healthy food you eat, the more vitamins you are likely to get.)

Some factions of the health establishment are now leaning toward the multi, while others still like the old joke that says you don’t need it, will get rid of it and just end up with expensive urine.

I remember several years ago reading that women who took a multivitamin daily were less likely to have babies with neural tube defects. The investigators didn’t know what was in the vitamin pill that might have protected against that condition, but it seemed something was there. The recommendation at that time was not that women who might get pregnant should take a multi as insurance, but that they should ask their doctors if it was advisable. The doctor may well have told them about the expensive urine. So time passes, new studies are available, and we now know it was the folic acid in the pill. In fact, grain products are now fortified with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Turns out folic acid isn’t absorbed too easily from foods in which it resides naturally. How many babies were born with the crippling condition spina bifida during the time between the first studies and the ones that proved the efficacy of folic acid for prevention? Wouldn’t it have been better to recommend the multi as insurance after the first studies?

Now take vitamin C as another example. The recommended amount of vitamin C is easily available from food. But there is an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population that is marginally deficient. These people are walking around with a mild case of scurvy. Would it be easier to get them to take a multi than to eat their fruits and veggies?

And then there is vitamin D, which is now getting some attention because it seems that people who live above a certain latitude just aren’t going to get enough from sunlight in winter, and many can’t, won’t or shouldn’t drink that much fortified milk. Vitamin D is there in your multivitamin. Our knowledge of the role played by these nutrients continues to evolve.

Those of us who exercise may wonder if we need extra vitamins. The general feeling is no, but some experts, most notably Dr. Ken Cooper, the “father of aerobics,” disagree. Everyone agrees that exercise and sports performance can be compromised by vitamin deficiencies, which is what the multivitamin is meant to prevent.

I am not talking about spending a lot of money on fat burners, performance enhancers, or whatever multilevel marketing product your neighbor is selling. I am talking about an inexpensive multivitamin product, with 100 percent or more of the recommended daily amount, which costs a few cents a day. In fact, the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter once suggested taking the K-mart product, which is just as good and a lot cheaper than many of the more advertised pills. I continue to be puzzled by the attitude of much of the health establishment opposing taking a multivitamin daily as insurance.

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